We have been keeping bees in Singapore for over two years. I don’t mean keeping in the sense that we keep pets like dogs and cats, or even domesticated animals like chickens and goats. Bees are wild and they don’t need us to feed or protect them to survive. They forage for their own food in the surrounding flora and they defend themselves from honey robbers like ants (and sometimes humans). If they don’t like where you keep them, they simply move off to better grounds.
Urban beekeeping is a growing movement in different cities over the world. There are over 3,000 bee hives scattered across London. There are also many on top of hotels, museums, and other prominent buildings in global cities like New York, Paris, Hong Kong, and Melbourne. Singapore is late in the game!
Since our first colony of bees moved into our rooftop garden on one morning in early 2013, we have been learning about beekeeping and getting stung in the process. There are lots of surprises and at least as many disappointments. That’s the way it is dealing with nature and wildlife. Any beekeeper would remember clearly the disappointment of walking up to and opening his hive to find it all quiet and empty, with the deserted combs still hanging there. We have had our first colony sprayed to death by pest control due to miscommunication.
We have been keeping the Asian honeybees, also known as Apis cerana. They are native to Singapore and are very well-adapted with little requirement of care. They look and behave similarly to the European honeybee, also known as Apis mellifera. When we first started off with beekeeping, there were not many places from which to learn this art. There are no apiaries or professional beekeepers in Singapore. The information on the internet are mostly about the European honeybees because that is the species beekeepers use in the US, Europe, and Australia. It took some adaptations of the literature online to cater to our Singapore honeybees.
Getting the Bees
To start with beekeeping, you would obviously need a colony of bees. In Singapore, this is the hardest and easiest part. It is difficult because we do not have the easy way of buying a bee colony. There are simply no apiaries here on our island. In other countries with professional beekeepers, you can order a nucleus colony and they will mail it to you! Even if you are brave, catching a handful of bees from a garden and putting them in a hive isn’t useful as well. Those are probably the worker bees and every colony would need a queen bee to survive.
Getting bees can be very easy too because you really don’t have to do much, except being patient and lucky. We have found that the best way to get a bee colony is to have them move into your empty hive on their own accord. The bees are most likely to stay in this manner.
Baiting a Bee Colony
To bait a bee colony, you have to understand what constitutes a suitable habitat for them to settle down and build a home. Honeybees need to build in an enclosed environment, like a cavity, with some form of entrance or exit for them to move freely. In that cavity, they can defend themselves from predators and also manage the micro-climate within the hive at 35 degrees celcius constantly be it rain or shine.
A mistake that we made in the beginning was to use hive designs for European honeybees. The European honeybees have much larger colonies and therefore like bigger hives. Our Singapore honeybees seldom have big colonies. They split into two separate colonies when it gets too crowded. I suppose that the reason is that over here in the tropics, there is no winter to tide through and the bees don’t need to store big amounts of honey. The European bees also like having more fellow bees to huddle with to keep them warmer during the cold winters unheard of in this part of our world.
Hives can get really complicated but really all you need for bees to reside in is a cavity. We have seen bees move into a cardboard box, a wooden shoe cabinet, a concrete mailbox, underneath clay roof tiles, even a sound speaker! The hive you see on the right is a topbar hive based on the dimensions from The Barefoot Beekeeper. The topbar hive was the hive of our choice because it is more natural for the bees and also easier to build.
To keep it easy, put together a box about 15-40 liters big with untreated wood and drill some entrance holes an inch wide. Once the box is built, you can leave it at a place elevated at least a meter from the ground and under shade from the sun. Then all you have to do is wait…
Increasing Your Chances
For those of you who don’t want to leave everything to fate, there are some methods to increase the chances of bees moving into your empty bait hive.
- Beeswax: You can leave some beeswax in the hive, or coat it with melted beeswax. The bees will smell it and are more likely to find your cosy hive.
- Bee Pheromones: We have been using lemongrass scent because it is said to be similar to the Nasonov pheromone that bees use to orientate themselves. You can buy it commercially as well.
- Smoking: In their natural habitat in the forest, honeybees are likely to find a home where there has been a recent forest fire. After the forest fire, it is unlikely that there will be another fire soon because there is little left to burn. Therefore they are safe from fire. The photo below shows us smoking a hive.
Our Enhanced Hive
After a few prototypes, we have arrived at an improved hive design adapting features from various places. It is a topbar hive based on dimensions that we observed our Singapore bees prefer. A lot of the design thoughts are taken from our friends at ApiAnon, an organization that is spreading natural beekeeping as a livelihood to villagers in India. The climate over there is similar to Singapore and we figured that the characteristics and behaviors of the bees should be more similar.
We have a honey super that can be added on top of the main hive body. The bees tend to store honey at the top of the comb. With a honey super, we can harvest only the honey with less disruption to the brood. Lastly, we added a viewing panel so that the beekeeper can check on the bees through a clear plastic sheet without opening the hive. Every time you open the hive, you are disturbing the bees and affecting the micro-climate they are trying to maintain inside.
More photos below. Next time, we’ll share about transferring bee colonies from another location into your hive!